Living with Grief & Loss
"But now says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the fame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior." Isaiah 43:1-3
In the midst of the complex experience we call life, the prophet speaks a clear word of comfort and support. We are known in the mind of God. We are loved in the heart of God. We are sustained through the strength of God. Yet experiencing the reality of these truths is often difficult when dealing with a painful death or great loss. Our feelings, thoughts, actions and beliefs will all be challenged, stretched and experienced in new ways – not all of them pleasant. Acknowledging this reality honestly in the presence of God is the beginning place of healing and holiness for those who grieve.
To grieve is to enter into a space made holy through the love which is lost. To grieve is to reach out for life ahead while still aching for the life which will never return. Grief is a natural response to a significant loss, touching the whole person. Psychologically, our thoughts and feelings are confusing. Socially, our behavior and interactions with others are adversely affected. Physically, our bodies react to the stress of loss. Spiritually, we wrestle with our beliefs and relationship with God.
The Struggle of Loss
Christians chronically fall prey to the fallacy of believing that living the Christian life in the providence of God spares us from experiencing sharp pain, deep sorrow or tragic injustice. When tragedy strikes, as it inevitably does all of us, we at some level feel betrayed or abandoned by God. Whether these feelings are powerfully felt or not, sustaining a major loss impacts our sense of equilibrium and challenges each of us to reevaluate our core beliefs: Is God just? Can we trust those around us? Can we risk love again?
Grappling with questions such as these is the hard work of grief which the apostle Paul describes in terms of suffering:
"Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5) .
We do not find this deep hope by denying the raw experience of our pain or avoiding our grief through religious platitudes. Genuine hope arises from directly facing difficult life experiences. God promises to sustain us in the midst of grief’s demands. These demands are heralded by many emotions as the bereaved struggles to learn to live anew.
Initially, grief’s assault is blunted by the feelings of shock and denial upon discovering the death of a spouse or the loss of a job. Raw pain overwhelms, and the body appropriately provides protection. Weeks later, we may experience shock and denial again when someone or something presents new circumstances for which we are not prepared. Anxiety arises as we face the harsh realities of change that major losses exact. Ironically, it is this anxiety which provides the energy needed to reckon with painful facts: there is now an empty place at the table or a final paycheck from work, and life will never again be as it was.
Our emotional pain may be intense enough to induce depression or mild hallucinations such as hearing our lost spouse in the kitchen at night or our lost child crying out for us. We ourselves may have begun crying (despite our best efforts to be “strong”) as an expression of our deepest, innermost feelings of loss. Yet, we may at some level fear that our tears or depression display a lack of trust in God. In these moments we need to remember that it takes courage to face the pain and sorrow of loss. Our tears and other physical responses are a measure of how much it is costing us to continue to move forward in life when it seems as if all the rules have changed. Anti-depressant medications and/or counseling should be considered for treatment of depressive feelings which persist and keep us from functioning.
Fear is a painful reality for all of us who have taken the risk of loving deeply and achieving intimacy and who have subsequently lost our beloved. Fears multiply: fear of never being whole again, fear of finding oneself inadequate to face life alone, fear of “losing” one’s faith, fear of somehow betraying the one loved so well, fear of never being able to risk and love again. Despite rational assurances to the contrary, fear can immobilize us. It is helpful in this context to remember Jesus’ assurance that “perfect love casts out fear” and allow this assurance to become a source of encouragement for turning to God, to our church family, and to other friends for loving support during fearful episodes.
Unresolved regrets and unfulfilled good intentions may loom large and eventuate in guilt feelings at the loss of a loved one: a husband who has hovered over his wife constantly for days leaves her bedside briefly, only to return to the news of her death; a mother whose child has died in utero questions her every action. Underlying these feelings is the belief that somehow our presence or actions could have changed the course of events. Sometimes we feel guilty for surviving our loved one’s death. Sometimes we feel guilty about mixed feelings we experience after our loved one has died. Conversations are laden with hypothetical conditions and questions: “If only I had acted differently?” “Why didn’t I check on her?” “Why didn’t I die instead of my son?” “How can I possibly feel relief when I should feeling only grief?”
While the thinking which accompanies these feelings is seldom realistic, the thoughts and feelings still need to be given expression. Finding someone who will hear our remorse and guilt and interpret such expression as a natural part of the grieving process is important. These conversations can serve as a kind of confessional in which we share our guilt feelings (deserved or not) and receive the affirmation and forgiveness which allows us to move on.
In the face of death or loss, feelings of helplessness, inadequacy and frustration sometimes turn to anger. When loss violates our sense of justice, anger may again be the first emotion to erupt. We feel angry when we have been abandoned or betrayed. We feel angry when others offer false assurances rather than hearing our pain. “It was God’s will… You’ll have another child… You shouldn’t feel the way you do…” None of these comments recognize the involuntary nature of feelings. If anger could be banished by wishing it gone, most of us would gladly move beyond this agony. For Christians the expression of anger is particularly difficult when we are angry at God because of the death of our loved one. Too often suppressed anger gets vented in unhealthy ways.
We should remember that anger is not the same as hatred. We can be angry with someone we deeply love. Especially when we acknowledge our anger and trust that God loves and accepts us even when we are feeling anger regarding our loss, this emotion can be focused to fuel the energies needed for genuine healing
Enduring the pain of great loss often feels like a lonely, circuitous journey. The journey through the river of grief may encompass even more feelings than those described. On the other hand, the journey may be more peaceful than anticipated. Sometimes laughter mingles with tears. Whatever our experience, it can be a journey toward healing.
The Healing Journey
Healing begins as we acknowledge the death or loss we have experienced. Acknowledging loss does not mean we accept it as just or right, but rather that we recognize its reality and finality. Struggling to understand and make sense of our loss, searching for answers, and adjusting our behavior and relationships are all acts of acknowledgment which comprise part of the journey transforming suffering into hope.
Moving On in Loving Memory
From the cross Jesus beheld his mother and his beloved friend John deep in grief and committed them to one another. He knew that his death would create a vacuum in each of their lives and that he could no longer minister to their needs through physical presence. Christ’s encouragement for them to embrace each other in no way diminished their love for him.
Though we never forget the significance of a lost loved one, we must somehow, like Mary and John, nurture previous and new relationships. Finding ways to invest our emotional energy in others while blessing the memories is essential to healing.
A bereaved father may share stories of lost loved ones with his children, both delighting them and connecting them with relatives they knew all too briefly. A widow may find unique solace and support from friends while keeping alive her husband’s memory by adopting one of his practices as a helpful part of her own life. A surviving son may reflect on how his father might have handled a difficult situation as he searches for solutions to a present dilemma. These practices help us understand the strengths and weaknesses of our loved ones, while valuing and incorporating their memories.
When we lose someone we love, our own identities are changed as well. The young couple whose first child is stillborn will always be the parents of that child. How do they accept their unchosen role as bereaved parents and move forward? By choosing to love again.
God’s promise to renew and redeem us each day of our lives can only be realized if we risk loving again. We do not make this move quickly or easily, but as God recreates our lives, we seize opportunities to reinvest emotional commitments. Freed by grace to love again, we are freed to move on.
Moving from grief to healing is also the journey to hope. Hope springs not from the easy optimism of wishful thinking, but from coping faithfully with death, pain and loss. We find enduring hope as we allow God to accompany and deliver us through the dark nights of our souls. The apostle Paul was well acquainted with grief and in its midst found Christian hope:
"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." Romans 8:18-25
“Living with Grief” is one of fourteen articles in the Getting Well: Christian perspectives on Health, Sickness, and Ministry series. Getting Well deals with major health and biomedical issues.
Christian Life Commission